On this dayOct 14, 1982

Ronald Reagan Expands Drug War, Targeting Black People

On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan announced plans to create 12 new drug task force units and hire 1,200 additional prosecutors, at an estimated cost of $200 million annually, further fueling mass incarceration, particularly in targeted Black communities.

President Reagan’s expansion of the “War on Drugs” built on the actions of President Richard Nixon, who announced a drug war in 1971. Nixon officials later admitted that the President intended to criminalize Black people.

During his two terms as President, Reagan tripled the federal drug law enforcement budget, hired over 4,000 additional prosecutors, tripled the number of drug cases prosecuted, and doubled conviction rates for drug crimes. He supported death sentences for individuals convicted of drug crimes and conscripted the United States Military in support of drug prosecutions.

When addressing the nation on the drug war, President Reagan used language that dehumanized people with addiction or dependency problems, calling them, in a 1988 speech, “parasites” and “vermin” who “peddled toxins” in government-subsidized housing. Drug enforcement targeted low-income Black communities and other vulnerable people and further entrenched the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that burdens people of color in the United States.  

The “War on Drugs” contributed to an eight-fold increase in the United States prison population and the over-incarceration of Black people. In 1980, only 25,000 people were in state and federal prison for drug violations -- today, over 300,000 people are in prison for violations of drug laws. Further, countless studies document that, despite Black people and white people using drugs at similar rates, Black people face a higher risk of arrest, pre-trial detention, incarceration, and extreme sentencing. Learn more about how EJI is working to challenge the devastating consequences of the drug war, such as extreme sentencing and high rates of incarceration.

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